Wednesday, December 31, 2008

War With Hamas: Day 5

The Israeli cabinet rejected a French initiated 48-hour ceasefire as Grad rockets with a range of nearly 25-miles have hit as far as Beer Sheva, a city of about 250,000, as the fighting between Israel and Hamas entered it’s fifth day. Hamas fired over 60 rockets at Israel during the day. Israeli warplanes continued bombing Gaza, including a Mosque that Israeli intelligence said served as a warehouse for weapons and shelter for Hamas fighters.

Four Israelis have been killed and scores injured since the fighting began. On Wednesday a Grad rocket killed a 34-year old mother of four. Over fifty people were treated for shock caused by the blast of rockets. Some Israeli towns like Ofakim and cities like Beer Sheva were hit by rockets for the first time in their history. On the Gaza side over 390 have been reported killed, 220 Hamas fighters.

Israel’s Homeland Security has issued a prohibition on public gatherings in Beer Sheva, closed schools for a 40-kilometer radius from the Gaza border, including Beer Sheva’s University of the Negev.

Hamas has remained belligerent, threatening Israeli leaders with assassination, and Israel’s population with rockets that can hit even further than Beer Sheva. The Israeli military is reportedly concerned about Iranian supplied 120 mm rounds that can wreck havoc among Israel’s troops gathered at the border. One Israeli soldier was killed yesterday at an army staging point near Nahal Oz by such weapons. Analysts say Hamas possesses a few dozen long-range rockets, a few hundred medium-range rockets and thousands of short-range Qassams.

Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said that Hamas has been hit like never before. According to Diskin the Hamas stockpile of weapons has been reduced by one-third, to 2,000 rockets, He said Hamas leaders are hiding in Gaza hospitals dressed as doctors and medics, or in mosques. Weapons have also been stockpiled in these two types of institutions.

The Israeli air force continues its strikes against Hamas targets, although less sorties are flown than in the past. This is part in due to inclement weather, with Gaza and much of Israel socked in with rain, clouds, and fog, and partly due to the success of the air force in reaching most of their assigned targets set out at the start of the operation.

The air force has also struck over sixty smuggling tunnels near the Egyptian border. One tunnel erupted in flames when the fuel stored there exploded. Reportedly Hamas is attempting to rebuild some of the tunnels as quickly as possible in order to smuggle Hamas leaders out of Gaza prior to the expected Israeli ground attack.

Israel’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has taken a much lower profile than his predecessor Dan Halutz, who managed the army during the unsuccessful War in Lebanon II. Neither Ashkenazi nor his subordinates have appeared on television. In the War on Lebanon II Halutz and his subordinates, as well as Israeli politicians, made frequent appearance on television giving a near play-by-play account of the attacks and battles.

Military analysts say this more demure approach, which the analysts refer to as “Tsinua” or modest, is in sharp contrast to leaders’ behavior in the previous war.

The arguments between the politicians have begun, however. Ehud Barak was reportedly in favor of the 48-hour cease-fire for a variety of reasons, one of which was the inclement weather that in any case would postpone a ground incursion into Gaza. The other was that this would position Barak, as leader of the liberal Labor party, as a humanitarian, and the last of which would put him on a different footing than his Kadima opponents in the upcoming general elections.

Barak was criticized in the Israeli press for playing politics in a time of war. Chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi was reportedly adamantly against the cease-fire, as were Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has issued a call for an additional 2,500 reserve soldiers to compliment the 6,700 already called up. The justification for the ground forces is debated by politicians and military analysts, mostly former generals. The mixed signals issued by Barak, on the one hand starting the air attack, and on the other talking about a cease-fire, have been pointed out as similar to the events of the War in Lebanon II when many in the military and the government disagreed with each other on what to do.

Those in favor of a ground attack say that only in this way can the army confront Hamas, and destroy the infrastructure. Others say that over the last five days most of the Hamas government buildings have been destroyed, and the office of Prime Minister Hanniyeh has been bombed twice.

Still others say that just as in the War in Lebanon, without a ground offensive, the air strikes will only cause Hamas temporary inconvenience. They point out that 20,000 Hamas fighters, if one counts the few thousand Islamic Jihad among them, are still on the ground in Gaza.

One pundit speculated that the real reason for the ground offensive would be to drive Hamas out of Gaza, or so effectively weaken it, that PA president Mohammed Abbas would be installed as head of the Palestinians with his headquarters in Gaza.
Abbas, according to this scenario, would effectively replace Hanniyeh, who was elected to the post.

Demonstrations against the invasion have continued across Israel, at the universities and on the West Bank. In the US a large demonstration was held in Detroit, home to the largest concentration of Moslems in the USA. Similar demonstrations were also held in London, home to another large Moslem population.

Iran has called on the Arab League to rise up and take action against Israel. Egypt, meanwhile, has continued to lay the blame on Hamas. Analysts say that no love is lost between Hamas and Egypt, since Hamas is connected to the Moslem Brotherhood, and Al Quaida, who are always on the move trying to overthrow Egyptian President Hussnei Mubarak.

Hamas keeps pressuring Egypt to open the Rafiah border crossing, and Egypt keeps refusing. One of the reasons, according to military analysts, is that Egypt knows that the Rafiah crossing is used primarily by Hamas to bring in weapons and ammunition. Egypt, they say, is under pressure by the US not to open the crossing.

On Wednesday a yacht carrying relief supplies to Gaza was turned back by the Israeli navy 53 kilometers from the Gaza coastline. The organizers of the relief attempt claim the Israeli navy shot at them. Israel says the boat was politely warned a number of times to turn back, and ignored the warnings. Military analysts say the boat was entering an active war zone where the Israeli navy has restricted movement. By allowing the yacht into Gaza air force and navy actions against would have suffered. The boat finally docked in Cyprus and the organizers held a press conference complaining of Israeli actions.

Israel did however allow over 100 trucks of supplies through the Karni crossing point. This in spite of the on-going Israeli attacks from the air. The Israeli air force continues the attacks while the military sends out messages to Gazans warning them to leave their homes if they’re in a building housing rockets, weapons, or Hamas fighters. The air force drops leaflets, while the military sends SMS and recorded telephone messages to the residents.

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah has joined the chorus of Arab voices against Israeli actions. Nasrallah went so far as to call for an uprising in Egypt. Hussnei Mubarak responded that if Nasrallah kept up the verbal insults soon he’d be facing the Egyptian army.

Still analysts say that Egypt is under pressure to step in and resolve the conflict. These analysts point out that Iran is competing for the role of leader of the Arab world, a role currently held by Egypt. Since Iranian ambitions for leadership were thwarted, at least temporarily, by the slow-down in its nuclear development program, Iran has stepped up its activities supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Prof. Ranan Cohen, former Labor party cabinet minister, has a program on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet co-hosted with an Israeli Arab woman. Last night he started off his program by wondering aloud why the Israeli Arabs had taken to the streets, hurling rocks, Molotov cocktails and death epithets at Israelis all because Israel had decided to finally strike back at Hamas, who anyway brought on the attacks by breaking the long-standing ceasefire with Israel. “Where were these people when Sderot and the Negev were being bombed, for the last eight years?”

A yellow post-it at the Israel Government Press Office said that since 2001 Hamas has fired over 10,000 rockets into Israel. Many Israelis interviewed said the time was long overdue for Israel to strike back.